For all the difficult questions a journalist will ask in their lifetime, surely we can ask each person we are interviewing a very simple one. What are your preferred pronouns?
Start your interview. Think of the questions you usually get out of the way at the beginning. What is your full name, and how do I spell it? Age? Now add just one more—preferred pronouns?
I was recently working on an article for Bustle and asked every single person their preferred pronouns, right after asking them their name and age. I did this regardless of if the person had ever indicated their preferred pronouns were different than the gender they presented as. I’m glad I did, because more than one person who I would have just assumed their preferred pronouns identified with different ones.
Best case, your story gains clarity and you deserve the trust your subject has placed in you. Worst case, they don’t know what that means and you clarify and move on. If you can’t use your subjects preferred pronouns, you are bringing so much of your own bias to the story that you frankly don’t have the right or the capacity to interview them or write about them.
If it’s not the focus of your story, don’t make it the focus. But ask it because you want to be as open and true in your interaction with your subject and with the public as you can. People will pass over “he” “she” or the singular “they” without much pause.
Journalism shapes the perception of the public. And if you chose to not use preferred pronouns or choose not to ask, you shape public perception in a way that discriminates against people who are not cisgender (denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex).
When a transgender, gender non-conforming or non-binary person is a subject in a piece of media, be it a hard-hitting news piece or an uplifting feature, keep in mind they’ve likely experienced or are acutely familiar with discrimination because of identity.
When an article runs and doesn’t use the subjects preferred pronouns, you’ve added to that discrimination. How can we as journalists write about injustice while wronging someone who very likely put their trust in us?
If you as a journalist are concerned about confusing people, you can absolutely define terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience. I’d rather be able to defend my stance from a place of understanding and respect for my subject and their truth, not from my own personal bias or an excuse.
GLAAD has a thorough guide for reporters, including the use of a transgender person’s name. “A transgender person’s chosen name should be considered by reporters to be their real name, whether it has been legally changed or not. Often transgender people cannot afford a legal name change, or they live in a community where obtaining correct identification is difficult. All transgender people should be treated as though they have changed their name legally to their chosen name,” the guide notes.
This is not letting the subject control the story. This is being a decent human being. In stories where the subject’s gender is relevant, you can note that. But if that isn’t relevant to the story, just ask the person’s preferred pronouns and use them, otherwise you are being sensational. If you get any blowback, you have feet to stand on. You were referring to the person the way they identify in this world and the way they want to be referred to. If you disregard them, you are disregarding their identity and disregarding the facts, which is frankly lazy journalism.
In the way that journalism can shape the public’s perception of the world, the world notices when the journalism world falls behind. Not long ago, we were capitalizing Internet, like it was some new and unknown thing, not a part of our daily lives. It made us look dated and out of touch with the way the world functions.
The 2011 Edition of the Associated Press Style Guide says reporters should “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”
There is no pretending that there is room for debate over using a person’s preferred pronouns. There is no reason strong enough not to ask. From one journalist to another: Use a person’s preferred pronouns. It’s easy and it’s truthful.